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Michelle French hired by University of Portland

FIFA via Getty Images

Former UP and USWNT player, and US U-20 national team coach Michelle French has been hired to take over the recently-troubled University of Portland women’s soccer program, reports Nick Daschel of the Oregonian.

The Pilots’ program has been without a head coach since Garrett Smith was released in November.

The move brings some continuity to the UP program since French, like Smith, was part of Clive Charles’ success at UP; French played for Charles between 1995 and 1999.

French will be announced as the new head coach this coming Monday, December 18th. The UP press release for this hiring reads, in part:

“Former University of Portland All-American defender, Olympic medalist, and U.S. Women's National Team assistant coach Michelle French has been named the new women's soccer head coach at Portland, University Vice President for Athletics Scott Leykam announced on Friday. She becomes the sixth overall head coach in program history and fourth at the NCAA Division I level for the Pilots.

French will return to her Portland roots where she helped lead the Pilots to three NCAA Final Four appearances and was a national player of the year finalist as a senior in 1998.

The University will host an official welcome and introduction of French as head coach on Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. at the Hall of Fame Room in the Chiles Center on campus.”

French’s work with the US U-20 WNT has been criticized for her lack of tactical sophistication, especially after an embarrassing third-place match beating from Japan in 2016. Jessica Fletcher, writing for our partner SB Nation site, said at that time:

“...the United States had a bevy of raw talent looking for guidance in order to form a cohesive unit and continue the winning tradition at the U20 WWC level. In both cycles (2014 and 2016), French has squandered that talent with her unimaginative tactics and her absent motivational skills. With the talent on this 2016 U20 team, there should never be a stretch where all 10 field players are in their own 18-yard-box and it’s not a corner kick. But that’s U20 soccer under French and it’s a waste of the talent we do have at this level. Yes, the talent is raw and could use a lot of polish but it is negligent to not give these players a coach that could develop them into something. Not only negligent to the players but negligent to the future of a youth program that is rapidly and obviously falling behind.”

French will have her work cut out for her at UP. Under Smith the program, which had punched well above its weight under Charles in the Nineties and early Oughts, slipped badly. The UP women ended the 2017 season 5-13-1 overall (2-7-0 in West Coast Conference play) and missed the NCAA postseason for the fourth consecutive year.

Another factor - in both the team’s decline and Smith’s release - may have been Smith’s lack of his predecessor and mentor Charles’ recruiting skills. A look at the Pilots’ record book shows the sort of standout athletes that Charles brought to the Bluff - players like French herself, Christine Sinclair, Shannon MacMillan, Meghan Rapinoe, and Tiffany Millbrett - were not coming to play for Smith. The last players of note to come out of the University of Portland program were Sophie Schmidt (last played for UP in 2010), Danielle Foxhoven (2011), and Amanda Frisbie (2013).

UP soccer was a significant element in developing the women’s soccer community in Portland, a community that has produced a level of support for the women’s game seen nowhere else, either in the United States or around the world. The mantle of that program now descends on one of its notable alumni, and there will surely be some critical attention paid to the progress of the UP women’s program under French.